If there’s one player this offseason that the Steelers can ill afford to lose, my money is on Casey Hampton. It’s not that the Big Snack is a free agent, because he’s still under contract for another season yet. It comes down the team just not having a suitable replacement at starter for him and at this point only 1 player in reserve, Steve McLendon. Casey may not be the player he used to be, he’s been in the league since 2001, but he can still hog up the Center and Guard pretty darn well. He is key to the Steelers run defense without question. There are pressing needs on the offensive line & middle linebacker as well as general depth at most positions on the team that will take priority with the premium round picks the team will have this coming draft. If they can keep Hampton around for another season they can address those needs and then look for either a late round gem to groom for the future or spend a top pick in the 2013 draft. Many scenarios can still play out yet but NT is a position that will be addressed either with Hampton’s return or in the draft.
Hampton’s base salary for 2012 is $4.89 million, but he will count a substantial $5.89 million against the Steelers salary cap this offseason, and they’re already approx. $25 million over as it is. They can try to restructure his deal to free up space, and while normally that’s not an issue for players, they are more than likely not going to be able to come up with a situation where they can give him that much money. Normally with restructures the team will give the a player signing or roster bonus where said player gets the bulk of his year’s salary in one lump sum rather than spread out over the course of the season. It allows you spread out the cap hit of that amount over the remaining life of the contract, the team can also add more years to the players deal to further alleviate the hit. With the team being so far over the cap though they still may not be able to pull it off. We should mention that the Steelers front office is some of the best of the business at manipulating their numbers to get the players they want. Remember last year they were able to get long term deals done for Lawrence Timmons, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and Lamarr Woodley. All of those players are high profile and high salaries. So while it’s not an impossible scenario to grasp, it is going to be a tough one nonetheless.
Casey likes playing in Pittsburgh, he’s been with the Steelers his entire career after being drafted out of Texas by Bill Cowher. He talked before the Super Bowl last season that if they were to win he would consider retirement. Further complicating the issue, it was reported today by Ed Bouchette that Hampton now will have ACL surgery on Friday but said he still wants to play in 2012. Depending on the severity of the injury the recovery process could reach into the start of training camp, but that’s not known at this time. The problems are compounded because long time backup and Hampton’s best friend, Chris Hoke is officially announcing his retirement today. Hoke will go down as one of the best reserve lineman in team history, and with only Steve McLendon left on the roster they will have to highly considering drafting a NT this April whether Hampton comes back or not. 3-4 Defensive Lineman generally take a few years to really develop in Dick Lebeau’s system so grooming an eventual replacement will have to start sooner rather than later. There’s been talk of moving current Defensive End Ziggy Hood over to NT should Hampton leave but there are concerns with his ability to hold the middle of the line consistently like Hampton has been able to do.
It’s hard to imagine Hampton taking a massive paycut just to stay with the Steelers, but it may come down to that if he wants to stick around.